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Harvard Study Finds U.S. Losing Race to Produce Advanced Math Students

David A. Kronig
Number 16 - February 11, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Casting doubts on the United States’ ability to maintain its global edge in scientific innovation, a new study from three prominent education researchers finds that the U.S. lags far behind other nations in producing high school students who are highly accomplished in math. Comparing the percentage of students who achieve advanced scores on a standardized math test in 56 industrialized nations, the study found that the U.S. was significantly outperformed by 30 of the 56.

U. S. Math Performance in Global Perspective: How well does each state do at producing high-achieving students? was produced by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann under the auspices of the journal Education Next and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The researchers drew on data culled from the 2005 and 2006 administrations of the National Assessment of Education Progress test and the Program for International Student Assessment test respectively, examining a representative sample of the high school graduating class of 2009 in each of the 56 countries. The study paints a picture of an American educational system that fails to produce high achievers in math at a rate necessary to compete on the international level.

“We give special attention to math performance because math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s economic well-being,” the study’s authors note. “Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school.”

In the United States, roughly 6 percent of students earned advanced scores, as compared with first place Taiwan, where 28 percent of students are advanced in math. The authors point out that “[i]t is not only Taiwan that did much, much better than the U.S. At least 20 percent of students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland were highly accomplished, and 12 other countries had at least twice the percentage of highly accomplished students as the U.S.”

Importantly, the study considers explanations often cited to mitigate the appearance of the United States’ underachievement, such as low performance by recent immigrant populations or socioeconomically disadvantaged minorities that could drag down averages. The study’s authors acknowledge that there is a scarcity of high achievers in STEM fields from disadvantaged minorities. However, they also find that even in subsets of the American population with historic advantages - white students and students with at least one parent who graduated college - the percentage of advanced students trails the overall percentage of advanced students in other nations.

“Only 8 percent of white students in the U.S. Class of 2009 scored at the advanced level, a percentage that was less than the share of advanced students in 24 other countries regardless of their ethnic background,” the study finds. It goes on to reveal that “the percentage of students in the Class of 2009 whose parent had graduated from college and who are performing at the advanced level is just 10.3 percent of the total. Students in 16 countries, no matter their parents’ educational attainment, out-rank this more-advantaged segment of the U.S. population.”

Moreover, though there is significant variation from state to state, even the highest performing state, Massachusetts, has only 11 percent advanced students, which ranks it behind 14 of the surveyed nations. Furthermore, even when the study examines a more privileged set of Massachusetts students, those with a college-educated parent, the percentage of advanced students still trails the percentage of all students (regardless of advantage) who achieved an advanced level in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The study’s authors question whether the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its focus particularly on helping low achieving students gain a basic minimum proficiency, hindered the American educational system’s ability to nurture high achievers. They find, however, that since enactment of NCLB, there has been a rise in the percentages of students both who achieve basic proficiency and in those who achieve high proficiency. Thus they conclude that “the incapacity of American schools to bring students up to the highest level of accomplishment in mathematics is much more deep-seated than anything induced by recent federal legislation.”

In their closing discussion, the authors posit that, though there are certainly many factors that may affect the underperformance of American students, this study’s findings indicate structural flaws in the American school system that must be addressed for the U.S. to continue to compete globally. They write: “That even relatively advantaged groups in American society—white students and those with a parent who has a college education—do not generate a high percentage of students who achieve at the advanced level in math suggests, we submit, that schools are failing to teach students effectively.”

The authors do not offer specific policy recommendations, but they caution that the solution is not simply more money. The United States already ranks near the top in per student expenditures on education, and in a time when there are strong pressures to trim federal spending, the authors concede that it is likely not feasible to significantly increase the K-12 education budget. They close the report by quoting Nobel Laureate Sir Ernest Rutherford, who said: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.”

David A. Kronig
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics